[For this fight, you kind of have to play https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a53s4jyCqqU. Maybe not the Wagner you would expect, but it is the right one.–Ed.]
Roxanne was a little bit surprised that Ariela had accepted her aristeia challenge.
Perhaps, it was true, every Valkyrie, deep in their heart, believed themselves the fiercest warrior of all Zahd’s children – but this was a title Roxanne had some claim to, though it had been an age since Zahd had pitted his daughters against each other in gladiatorial combat to earn his affections. Roxanne had not won the title of grand champion – Isgird was without peer that fateful day, challenging even Zahd himself – but she had put in a respectable and honorable showing.
Ariela had not even competed. What would have been the point? She was the Valkyrie most famous for losing combats and taking men to bed. No one would have ever confused her for a warrior.
And yet now that Ariela ‘Open Legs’ was in front of her, hoisting her double-bladed sword ‘Maidenleaf’, Roxanne knew that Ariela was a warrior born surely as any of her sisters. The footwork, the efficient movement, the determined look on her face – this was not going to be so easy a fight as Roxanne thought.
Roxanne thrust with the Daedalus lance, probing forward, but Ariela knocked it aside with her own weapon and was inside Roxanne’s guard before she knew it. Ariela unleashed a spinning kick (when did she ever learn that kind of karate? That wasn’t in any of the stories.)
Ariela smiled. “Not prepared to fight today, sister?” she chided. “Or perhaps you find my skill far exceeds my reputation…?”
“Silence, trickskin!” bellowed Roxanne, punching forward with the mid of the spear’s shaft to try to force her back, get some distance.
Ariela thrust her own weapon forward, locking blades. “Did it ever occur to you, Roxanne Heavensguide, that I lost all those fights on purpose ? That I wanted to take those lovers? That I wanted their affection, their touch, their breath, much more than I wanted some pointless victory?”
“You make a mockery of the Walkuren !” growled Roxanne, putting her full back into the lock and forcing Ariela back.
“Why?” Ariela regained her footing, and put her weapon on guard. “Why am I such a disgrace? Because I made love instead of war?”
“You disobeyed Seafather Zahd!” thundered Roxanne, throwing her lance at Ariela’s head, meaning to end it – but Ariela, too quick, knocked it aside and the deadly lance impaled itself on the wall.
Roxanne’s guard was down, and Ariela pressed that attack, with a sweeping cut across the abdomen. Roxanne stepped back, but just an instant too late, as the very edge of the blade cut her stomach-skin. A mere flesh wound – but when was the last time any opponent had managed to do this to Roxanne?
“First blood,” said Ariela. “Again, I offer you ehrezug . You may leave with your honor. I don’t want to kill the only sister I actually like.”
Ariela’s words cut Roxanne more deeply than her blade. For an instant, one part of Roxanne – the modern, genteel, ‘Tasnican’ Roxanne that was a professor and drove sports cars and loved Space Battles – thought they should just lay down their arms and talk it all over. But then she remembered Fara, and once again she was the alte Taznikanze Roxanne who was the war-god’s daughter, sworn protector and defender of all lost souls, and bound by blood-oath to bring this traitor to justice.
The Daedalus Lance returned to her hands, and Roxanne readied her attack.
“…very well,” said Ariela, a note of melancholy in her voice. “Though, do tell me sister – how long has it been since you have taken a lover?”
In all her thousands of years, Roxanne had only been defeated three times – and thus had only taken a lover three times. “Is this aristeia , or girl gossip?” spat Roxanne, vaulting forward on her spear.
Ariela, momentarily surprised, was hit by Roxanne’s flying kick, knocked off-balance, though she let out a chortle. “Is there someone new in your life, sister? I am truly happy for you, if this is so.”
Roxanne could remember the stories behind each of her lovers, and she could intimately remember each of the battles that led to her defeat. But the lovemaking – she knew it had happened, but couldn’t remember the touch, the scent, the feelings.
Thousands of years was a long time to live.
“For what it’s worth,” said Ariela, playing defensively, “I’m glad it’s you they sent for me, North Star. I think, perhaps alone among our sisters, you would be the one to understand.”
Roxanne charged forward with a spinning attack, unable to resist a bit of wushu flourish. “What’s to understand?” she roared. “You stole a seed! You betrayed Father!”
Ariela parried – though not perfectly, as Roxanne had made a little cut of her own. “Huh,” said Ariela. “You learned that one from that Xsian Sage you were so fond of? I remember he was quite the wit – I don’t think I’d ever seen you laugh so hard!”
Roxanne’s mind briefly flashed back to the Xsian sage – Genruo the Eternal Seer – known to history as the author of the Canon of Changes, though Roxanne always remembered him for his dry humor and fantastic cooking – to this day, Roxanne detested eating Fabulian food, as it seeming a pale imitation of Genruo’s exquisite art.
“He’s gone now,” Roxanne said, and she hated Ariela for making her remember Genruo, remembering his spectral form vanishing ephemerally at daybreak, and her sadness at the memory hardened into contempt, contempt she made into armor to fight against the traitor.
“They all die,” said Ariela. “All of them. You know, one of my nicer nicknames is ‘Ariela of the Thousand Lovers.’ But they’re all dead. They all turn to dust, eventually.”
“You try to confuse me, silvertongue!” roared Roxanne, and charged Ariela again like something superhuman. Roxanne let loose a war-cry – no longer under the illusions about her opponent’s skill – and surged forward, the war-god’s thunder pulsing in her veins, feeling strong and powerful and hate-filled.
And yet Ariela held – in fact, she let the attack in even as she deflected it, bringing Roxanne’s face close to hers, nearly touching.
“Tell me, Roxanne, daughter of Zahd – do you remember your mother?” asked Ariela.
Roxanne scrunched her face. “The stories say she was named Sigrun and she was steel maiden to the great warlord –“
Ariela pulled Roxanne in, closer. “I don’t care what the stories say,” she said. “I didn’t ask that. I asked….do you REMEMBER ?”
Roxanne did not. Her human mother had passed away millennia ago – long before the Web, before the Republic, in a time before time. She knew the name, because she had heard the story of how the God of War had taken a liking to a particular steel maiden and had his way with her. In the story, Roxanne’s mother Sigrun was a brave woman, a noble fighter with long blonde hair – but who knew if any of that was true?
“I remember my mother,” said Ariela. “At least, I…I think I do. Her name was Dunia, and she was a baker….I remember being young, tiny and small. I had a sister named Klarissa – not a Valkyrie, a human sister. We would always play dice games with the fisherman’s boy – I think Klarissa married him, in time…” Ariela’s face looked determined, inward. “It’s hard to remember, it’s a long time ago…but one thing I do remember – my Mother was kind to me and my sister. She held us and hugged and kissed us and sang us to sleep….and every Yuletide she worked so hard to make sure we had the best stollen …even during the famine years, she gave us food and a house full of love…”
Roxanne pushed her back. “You’re babbling, speaking tongues to try to trick me,” she said. “What’s all this nonsense about lost lovers and dead mothers have to do with anything? You try to obfuscate your crimes, but you cannot escape Zahd’s justice!!”
And yet – Ariela could just spin and parry anything Roxanne did. She’d seen it all – there seemed to be no attack Roxanne could conceive that Ariela did not know the counter to.
“Let’s drop this pretense,” Ariela said. “It’s not about father. You’re here for the girl.”
Roxanne gritted her teeth. “She’s the Mana Knight.”
“She’s not [i[ just [/i] the Mana Knight to you, is she?” taunted Ariela, twirling away. “You always do this, you know.”
“Do what?” boomed Roxanne. “Guiding heroes and lost souls is my calling, my place in the firmament…”
“Not that,” said Ariela, stepping inside Roxanne guard to deliver a knee kick that briefly staggered Roxanne. “You always make a family.”
Roxanne was stunned, more by her words than her knee-blow.
“Oh, sure,” Ariela continued, going to work with her elbow-axe inside Roxanne’s guard. “They’re not a normal family – a broken down superhero, an amusing bird-man, and a plucky little girl from Egmont. But they’re your family. You watch movies together, even when Osprey wants to watch that stupid samurai flick again. You helped Terry find the strength to be a hero again. And Fara? Well, for Fara you’ve come here to kill me…”
Roxanne collapsed, her body bruised, pummeled, beaten, Ariela’s words and blows striking true. “…then why?” she asked. “Why, sister? Why do you come between me and my…family?”
“Because they’re all dead anyway,” sighed Ariela. “Maybe not today, or tomorrow…but in a hundred years, or two hundred years, when you have aged barely a day, they will all be dust, dead in the ground.”
Roxanne clawed to Ariela’s feet and got a good grip – thankfully, Ariela hadn’t learned the Sabin Suplex, and Roxanne drove her skull into the ground. “So, that’s it, then?” she said. “Kill them now, because they’re all going to die anyway?”
Ariela was stunned and dizzy – Roxanne was also battered, running on a thin fume of contempt. Privately, Roxanne begged her sister to stay down.
Ariela popped to her feet. “No, no, you misunderstand me, sister,” she said. “Your deep connection to mortalkind is one thing I always admired about you. Perhaps, among all Zahd’s daughters, only you and I truly love Man’s World, and all that is in it.” Ariela unscrewed the center shaft of Maidenleaf, turning it into a chain-whip style weapon. (Roxanne had no idea it could do that.)
“What’s the game, then?” demanded Roxanne, thrusting again – but Ariela used Maidenleaf’s chains to wrap up her blade. “Why take the seed? Why anger Father? You could have lived in and out of ten thousand years, taking all the lovers you wanted!”
“No games,” said Ariela. “And what I want is an end to this cursed existence – born of God and mortal, yet living in between, neither fully one or the other.”
Roxanne’s eyes narrowed, and she gasped. “So that’s it,” she said, pulling her lance free. “I never thought that you would be so arrogant, Ariela, as to desire godhood!”
In spite of the dire situation, Ariela laughed – and in spite of it, Roxanne could not help but find her laughter a little charming, warm even. “No, sister, not godhood,” she said.
“….why?” asked Roxanne, dumb-struck.
“Why?” asked Ariela. “Why? WHY? Because I want love and life and a family! I want to marry a good man and grow old with him! I want to raise children, and be proud of them! I want to spend a life with with friends and loved ones – and someday, someday before I see everything I love vanish and turn to dust, be put to my forever rest, cherished by my children, and my children’s children.”
Roxanne steeled her rage. “For this…stupid, sentimental cause…you’ve put us all in grave danger!”
“I’ve given a Seed to some self-important conjurer, so what?” Ariela protested. “A Seed to give my barren womb life, and a Sword to cut the cord of divinity and give me my true freedom!”
“…that’s, that’s not what’s in our stars, dead sister,” said Roxanne. “This place, this world…it’s not for us…”
“…but, don’t you want to be a part of it?” asked Ariela. “Not skirting the edge of it jumping in and out of ten thousand years, but TRULY a part of it?”
Roxanne was silent at first, and the silence spoke volumes.
“You’re right, Ariela,” she said. “If it had been another besides me – grim-faced Gabriela or keen-eyed Astrid – they would not understand.”
Ariela cocked her head. “But you do. I knew you would.”
Roxanne no longer cared that Ariela had betrayed Zahd – the great and terrible god of war and the seas was no loving father. But, in place of her hatred and anger there was growing an awareness – if Roxanne failed to stop Ariela here, Fara was certainly doomed, and probably Terry, Osprey, and Eleod, too.
“But you understand, Ariela,” said Roxanne, “that I can’t allow anyone to harm my family.”
“I know,” she said. “More than know, I…I understand . But…we’re family, too, Sister,” said Ariela.
“Yes,” said Roxanne. “And as your sister, and the guide to all those who are lost – I’m sorry. It…didn’t have to be this way.” Roxanne cursed herself – an all the millennia she and Ariela had shared, she had seldom seen her, much less bothered to get to know her, to be her friend, to be her sister. If all she wanted was mortality – to truly become a part of Man’s World – there had to have been a better way.
Ariela sighed, and then she laughed a bit. “Shikata ga nai – it cannot be helped. Gods, I hated it so much when Isokaru used to say that…”
Roxanne could not help but laugh and grin a bit, too. “Shikata ga nai – that sounds like something out of one of Osprey’s samurai movies!”
A moment passed, and the laughter turned to silence, a silence that turned the chamber into a tomb smelling of death. The other fights in the chamber had finished, but it did not matter – this was aristeia , honorable single combat between evenly matched warriors on the field of battle, and aristeia between Valkyries was the sort of thing that could only be witnessed once in a generation.
“Sister,” said Roxanne, “now it is I who offer you honorable retreat. You have fought bravely and well – from this day forward, let the skalds sing that Ariela is no less a fierce warrior than lover.”
“You honor me, sister,” said Ariela. “But I’m not leaving the only chance I’ve ever known for the only thing I truly want.”
Roxanne sighed. “So be it, true-hearted Ariela,” she said, “let’s end this, then.”
Ariela charged. Roxanne parried, forced back. Her mind no longer clouded by rage, Roxanne saw an opening – at last, she knew how to win. She abandoned the offensive; Ariela eagerly charged in, overextended. Ariela was a whirling maelstrom, upon Roxanne from all angles – the victory-scent in her nose, the blades of Maidenleaf swinging round and scratching at Roxanne’s back.
And, in the middle of it all – an opening, a weak point, a vulnerable spot. Roxanne swing the great polearm and opened a gash just beneath her chest, and then, with all of her demigod might, thrust the lance deep through Ariela’s body.
The vanquished Valkyrie pulled the spear deeper, coming closer to Roxanne, her blood dripping on the floor.
“Oh, Sister,” Ariela said, “….I suppose this is the end of my dream, isn’t it?”
“Rest now, Ariela,” said Roxanne. “Rest, noble daughter of Dunia…”
“I…am glad,” said Ariela. “I…am glad it’s you, North Star…and I am glad…that we had this time together…” She coughed blood, “though…my children would’ve been so beautiful…you would’ve made a wonderful auntie, dear sister…”
And thus was how Roxanne – North Star, Heavensguide, wielder of the Daedalus Lance, mentor of a dozen heroes and scourge of countless battlefields – came to defeat Ariela – the baker’s daughter.